Pismo Beach Dunes: The Practical Guide for Trip Planning

A view of Pismo Dunes with the ocean in the far background

The Oceano Dunes, commonly referred to as Pismo Dunes, are a vast area of sand dunes located within Pismo Beach. Pismo Beach is a small ocean town just south of San Louis Obispo in Southern California. Pismo Beach itself is a great spot to spend the weekend, however if you’re just there for the day, we recommend skipping right to the Pismo Beach Dunes.

The Pismo Beach Dunes have both an area for walking around as well as an area for off-highway vehicles (OHV), this area is often referred to as the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area (SVRA).

Women standing in the Pismo Dunes recreational area.View of Pismo Dunes with the ocean in the far background

What are the Pismo Beach Dunes?

The Pismo Beach Dunes appear as massive, wind-swept hills covered in sand, reminiscent of the Sahara desert. The dunes go on for miles, covering a vast geographical area, just off of Pismo Beach. The dunes are apart of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, which spans 18 miles of the Southern California coastline. When you visit these dunes, you feel like you could be in an entirely different country as the landscape is just so unique.

Another unique feature of these dunes are that they are only area of beach in California that you can drive on. However, this should come with a disclaimer as big changes are coming in 2024 when they state will stop allowing any off-highway vehicles to drive around the Pismo Dunes.

Why So Many Names?

When you first start looking into the dunes, it can get confusing because they have so many names they go by. We’ll break it down here to assist with planning and researching for your trip.

Oceano Dunes/ Pismo Dunes/ Pismo Beach Sand Dunes/ Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve:

These names are all referring to the exact same dunes – confusing, right? Pismo Dunes was the older name for this area and it has since been renamed as the Oceano Dunes. Furthermore, when they refer to the Pismo Dunes Natural Persevere they are referring to the area of the dunes that is off-limits to vehicles.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area (SVRA)/ Oceano Dunes off-highway vehicle (HV):

Yes, these names are also referring to the SAME dunes. The only difference with these names are that they are most likely referring to the area of the dunes that are designated to allow for off-highway vehicles, such as dune-buggies.

To make it all much simpler, we will refer to the dunes as Pismo Beach Dunes throughout the guide, and if we are talking about the area that allows off-road vehicles (and no walking), we will call this the SVRA area of Pismo Beach Dunes.

For a more visual breakdown of the dunes, including how they’ve labelled the different areas of Pismo Beach Dunes, download this map found on the California State Park website

Can You Drive on Pismo Beach Dunes?

As of 2021, the California Coastal Committee voted to end the use of OHVs anywhere in Pismo Beach Dunes. The use of OHVs will be slowly phased out over the next few years with them being completed phased out by 2024. The reasoning for phasing out OHVs is due to the dune’s delicate eco-system that is home to several threatened and endangered species. Some of these endangered species, such as the western snowy plover and California least Tern, had their species numbers increase during the pandemic when OHV use was shut down, which confirmed the need to scale the dunes from off-roading.

The phasing out guidelines include:

  • Stopped all nighttime off-roading, which went into effect immediately. The only exception is campers who arrive after dark and need to get the their campsite as well as emergency vehicles.
  • You are no longer able to cross Arroyo Grande Creek with a motorized vehicle, which is new as off 2021
  • As of July 2022 vehicles will no longer be permitted to use the Pier Avenue entrances
  • As of March 18 2024 all vehicle use within the dunes will be banned

Overall, the California Coastal Committee is trying to protect the wildlife that relies on this ecosystem from the nearly 2.2 million yearly visitors.

A man standing in Pismo Dunes looking back with the ocean in the far backgroundA view of Pismo Dunes with the ocean in the far background

How to Access the Pismo Beach Dunes

Now on to exploring Pismo Beach Dunes. The dunes are a great spot to hike around and go sand sledding, and can be accessed through the entrance of Pismo Dune Natural Preserve by foot or by car. We will go into details about both options below (two driving entrances and one entrance via foot), however our recommendation is entering by foot at the Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort.

Accessing Pismo Beach Dunes by Foot

We opted to access the dunes by foot, and we found this super easy to do! You’ll be accessing the dunes from the backside via the Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort.

Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort

Location: 1205 Silver Spur Place, Oceano

You’ll drive to the Pacific Dunes Ranch and RV Resort. The driveway is mainly farmers fields but don’t worry, you are in the right spot. You’ll drive up to the resort and park just before the guest parking lot, this is the gravel lot before you pass the fence. As long as you’re not parked on the concrete parking lot, this will be free and is allowed.

From here you’ll walk through the RV resort to get to the entrance to the dunes. You can follow the road up the hill and keep following it as it veers left. The entrance to the dunes will be obvious and is marked with a wooden fence. From there, you simply enter the dunes and start to explore! We headed towards the coastline and simply enjoyed the stunning landscape, however many have recommended bringing a sled to really have some fun!

Accessing Pismo Beach Dunes by Car

As mentioned above, this option will not be an option by July 2022. There are two ways to enter into the Pismo Dunes by car, either via Pier Avenue Park Entrance or through the Grand Avenue Entrance. Prior to jumping into the instructions, we will note that no you don’t need a 4×4 vehicles to drive along the Pismo Dunes beach. Follow the designated trail and do not try to cut corners as you’ll most likely get stuck in an area of loose sand. As long as you are on the packed down sand, any vehicle should be able to drive along this route.

Pier Avenue Park Entrance

Location: 200 Pier Ave, Oceano

The Pier Avenue Park entrance is the best way to enter if you choose to drive along the beach to enter the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve. You can choose to park at the entrance and then walk along the beach until you reach the area of Pismo Dunes designated for exploring by foot. Or you can pay $5 to enter and drive along the beach until you reach the dunes. The latter option is definitely the most unique experience, but should be done at low tide to prevent getting stuck.

This is the entrance that both campers and OHV users will use to access that area. As you drive, you’ll pass posts marking where you are. Post 1, 2 and 3 all have the walkable dunes to the left of you. Post 2 is about a mile from the entrance and marks the beginning of the OHV use area, so we recommend not going further than this so you don’t disturb the area or get injured.

Grand Avenue Entrance

Location: 105 Grand Avenue, Grover Beach

You can also enter by the Grand Avenue entrance and drive along the beach until you reach the dunes. This entrance is further from the dunes and definitely less commonly used. You enter at the Grand Avenue entrance and drive along, passing both the Pier Avenue entrance and posts until you reach post 2. Entrance is still $5 per vehicles here, however due to the distance we do not recommend parking here and walking in.

If you enter the dunes from this entrance and drive North, this is a popular spot where people have bonfires in the evening. This is a great spot to visit, but it won’t have the same massive dunes you find in the Natural Preserve area to the south.

A couple holding hands and walking along a dune at Pismo Dunes

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t realized by now, we were absolutely blown away by Pismo Beach Dunes. Not often do you research and plan a trip but still get stunned by the sheer size of a natural landscape.. I will say at first it seems complicated how to access the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve, however follow our step-by-step instructions and you’ll be fine. Happy Exploring!

Heading further south down the California coast? Check out our top 12 must-see spots in Big Sur and our complete guide for a Pacific Coast Highway road trip adventure.

 

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